I lost 20 years of my life to alcohol because I wanted to fit in

I was an alcoholic for 20 years.

Five years ago, deep in the throes of my two decade addiction to alcohol, I didn’t care if I lived or died. I didn’t care about anything.

I didn’t care about responsibilities or about letting people down.

We all have responsibilities in one way or another. No matter how big or small you perceive a responsibility to be, to each individual involved, that responsibility is as important as anyone else’s.

It doesn’t matter if you are running a country or you promised to help a young one with their homework, it is a moral contract or verbal agreement to complete an action. If that is unfulfilled, it has consequences in one way or another.

It is this level of accountability that keeps communities safe, puts food in hungry mouths and enables society to pulse and flow with the dynamism and fluidity it requires to maintain the status quo.

Now in recovery, I look back at the 20 years I spent addicted to alcohol when I let down everyone who relied on me.

It takes a long time to unpick that length of dependency, looking for answers you may never get.

I knew from an early age I had to adapt if I were to be accepted. Skinny, with freckles and red hair, I was, by anyone standards, a prime target for older kids staking their claim in the school pecking order. But I never allowed this to happen as I had a real talent for fitting in.

Regardless of class or type I never had an enemies or an arch nemesis. Flitting from one group to the next became second nature. I could be playing football one end of the playground and talking Shakespeare by the time I reached the other. What that meant was that in my teenage years, when everyone was carving out their own personality and style, I was never able to be my own person because I didn’t know who that was.

Now, there comes a time in everyone’s secondary school education where, if you haven’t already, you need to nail your colours to the mast, so to speak, and pledge your allegiance to a particular group.

After careful consideration and a foolhardy adolescent risk assessment, I chose every parent’s worst nightmare: the wrong crowd.

I can’t stand this generalisation – usually because it’s not a true reflection of the people in such a group. What is toxic, however, is the negative competitiveness that comes with such a group.

Being competitive in the right areas is healthy and vital if you are to achieve what you want in life. Unfortunately, for others, this can manifest in breaking rules like fighting or missing school.

I found my niche in taking drugs.

The position I found myself in was a perfect example of the phrase ‘bittersweet’.

Drugs gave me the stamina to keep up this daily parody personality I had carved out for myself and just enough notoriety to keep any aggro at bay, although I knew my grades were suffering and I was getting in more and more trouble.

The problem with the entire situation was there’s a huge difference between fitting into a group and being an actual part of a group. This feeling of never truly being part of something would stay with me til this day.

Despite the drugs, I hadn’t yet been introduced to alcohol.

After leaving school I went straight into work as I needed the money. Now that I was a grown-up, I started doing ‘grown-up things’, like going out for a few drinks. This was a revelation because not only could I be anybody I wanted to be while drunk, it seemed that everyone else was doing exactly the same thing as me.

These behaviours became the cornerstone of my personality, but were almost impossible to keep up for 24 hours a day.

Anyone I got close to would be drawn into what, on the face of it, was a happy-go-lucky, life-and-soul-of-the-party, always-smiling-and-joking-around type of guy. In reality, I was brooding, withdrawn and negative about the world. I did my best not to present myself like that – and I learned I could ‘cure’ it by drinking.

This became the daily cycle.

People eventually saw through my act and then became resentful that I had convinced them I was somebody I was not, somebody unwilling or unable to change – a cuckoo in the nest.

The 90s was such a strange time and it’s astonishing how different the mindset was, even between one generation.

The Spice Girls had landed, advocating girl power and ‘ladette’ was the new buzzword, but this seemed to puff out male chests more than ever, as if to assert dominance or mark their territory.

Drinking is so entrenched in the British psyche that I felt I had no option but to allow myself to be pressured into this relationship with alcohol.

As time went on though, the alcohol was not only a prop to help me sustain this persona I had created, it was also beginning to drown out the voice of reason in my mind.

That voice of reason was me, it was self, it was the person at complete polar opposites to who I presented as in public.

I gave no consideration to other people’s feelings and lived a completely self-serving lifestyle.

At times, I would transcend above myself, almost like a fly on the wall, looking in on what I was saying or doing, while thinking: ‘What are you playing at?’

But the feeling I had other people’s expectations to live up to outweighed that. I continued to be first in and last to leave the pub, in case I missed anything.

My priorities revolved around the drinking culture, where I felt most comfortable. I always had an excuse to be out socialising, rather than doing everyday things like saving for a house or starting a family. My health began to suffer as well, not just with the physical withdrawals from alcohol, but with my mental health, which became apparent later on.

Despite the problems alcohol was now causing me, I had always felt I didn’t belong. So why would I even consider giving up the one thing that, although falsely, allowed me to be anything I wanted to be?

I would go on holidays, festivals, weekenders, which felt amazing at the time but in the cold light of the following day, I would be filled with anxiety and unable to cope emotionally.

I was spiralling into debt, but counteracted the guilt by saying I was making memories. The irony was I would be so inebriated, I would have no recollection of what had happened anyway.

What followed over the next 15 years was the perpetual cycle of a functioning alcoholic.

Things would be OK for a while then I would go off the rails, leaving family or partners to pick up the many drunken pieces. I would turn my phone off and disappear for days on end. I would miss work. I would promise to visit loved ones and attend family functions, only to fail to show with no reason or explanation.

I tried everything to stop this runaway train with medication, home and hospital detoxes, community groups and even golf.

The biggest problem wasn’t the drinking or the behaviour, however. Deep down I just didn’t want to stop.

The UK’s relationship with alcohol

While Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has no formal definition of alcoholism, the majority of members agree that it could be described as a physical compulsion, coupled with a mental obsession.

According to a recent LifeSearch study:

  • 1 in 5 Brits use drugs and alcohol to cope with issues
  • 45% of us currently self-medicate for mental health issues with 37% of men and 40% of women using alcohol to do so.

Three million of us attend AA meetings every year.

No matter how strange this may sound, it was the only thing I felt I had any sort of control over in my life. What looked like chaos was created by me, my decision, my choice.

Each time it happened though, I would lose something. Whether that be a friend, a partner or a job, nothing would appease the conflict going on in my head other than alcohol.

In May 2013, I was at the height of my addiction. I was 33 and had lost my home, my job, my family and all but a handful of friends.

I had even lost my freedom because in 2010 I’d had my licence revoked for motoring offences while under the influence of alcohol.

I will never forgive myself for that and thank my lucky stars that my foolish decision never involved anybody else.

I found myself holed up in an emergency bedsit not living, just existing, I recognised this feeling as I had felt it before. That last time I had felt out of control, a few months prior, I tried to take my life.

I was fortunate enough to have a friend call an ambulance that time and, although I wasn’t at the time, I will be forever grateful.

My life was at a crossroads. My thoughts were running away with themselves and I couldn’t see past the end of my nose, never mind a future.

I had never been a talker, choosing to push my feelings as deep as possible under a blanket of chronic alcoholism.

People are under the misconception that it is the stopping drinking that is the hardest part. But actually, the physical dependence can pass in three days to three weeks, depending on the person.

It is really the psychological dependence and inner issues that rise to the surface once you sober up that I feel is the real killer.

Once sober, I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) which explained the conflict and the intrusive thoughts that kept me feeling low and worthless.

But I accept responsibility for my addiction. I was as culpable, if not more.

It was at this point I rang the Samaritans. My alcohol worker had told me to try it before, but I never had. You always feel judged as an addict but the listener was empathetic and made me feel like I mattered.

I wasn’t after answers, just the opportunity to unload my problems. I went on to explore my anxiety, frustration, guilt and anything else I could get off my chest.

I was very well supported by drug and alcohol workers, as well as my GP, but I had reached a point where I couldn’t take my hat off, had to be accompanied in public, couldn’t make eye contact with people.

I was fortunate enough that the NHS paid for my rehab in Bury for a full year.

I had to relearn how to do everything when sober.

The 12-month residency programme was community living with 30 addicts so it was very confrontational and hectic but worth it. All this was backed up by theory and counsellors and involved a mixture of intense CBT and emotional therapy.

I don’t dislike alcohol. And while it works for others to do so, I don’t empower it by saying I will always be an alcoholic. That’s just what works for me.

I prefer to say I used to be alcohol dependant and I always say I could drink whenever I want but I choose not to. Although, since for many years I leaned on it for everything, I know in reality I can’t have a relationship at all with alcohol and I am fine with that.

On reflection, I have come a long way since those days.

I had to completely relocate, delete old friends and be self aware enough to not slip into old habits. I also attended various groups for things like anxiety.

I started volunteering to be busy and to try and give a bit back, clichéd but true. It has given me an emotional sense of purpose.

I also enrolled at Bury college with the five-year plan to go to Uni. I’m now a student at Bolton University studying Criminology. I’m achieving goals that benefit me moving forward with a profession.

I have to push myself all the time with the OCD and challenge my intrusive thoughts – so I have pushed myself out of my comfort zone with public speaking. I’ve done talks with The Samaritans, been interviewed on BBC Radio 4 and 5, and I was one of seven who fronted this year’s Samaritans national campaign with British Rail.

Make no mistake, my story plays out like countless other people’s. But the difference is, this journey was unique to me.

My life is a work in progress so I will need to stay vigilant, but at last, it is not a pretence.

This isn’t about what others feel about me, this is about how I feel about me.

And it’s taken me my entire lifetime to come to terms with that.

Darran has been a Samaritans volunteer for four years. If you are interested in volunteering and supporting people in need, you can find out more here.

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